The start of the year has brought the withdrawal of US-led international troops from Afghanistan one step closer. This year will be pivotal, as it becomes ever more pressing to shore up the security situation in the Central Asian country and arrange the details of the transition that leads up to next year’s withdrawal.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is paying a visit to the United States this week, and he is scheduled to meet US President Barack Obama on Friday. They are expected to discuss how many US troops will stay in Afghanistan after 2014, which is a question of concern.

The Obama Administration is committed to withdrawing the majority of its 68,000-strong military presence in the country. In fact, the administration recently gave the first explicit signal that it might leave no troops in Afghanistan after December 2014, which is a major departure from the Pentagon’s view that thousands of troops may still be needed to deter al-Qaeda and to strengthen the Afghan forces. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon has prepared the plans for a “residual” presence of up to 9,000 US troops in Afghanistan.

There has been some speculation that Karzai’s trip will yield results in the inking of a long-term security partnership between the two countries.

Talks between the two sides on the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement began two months ago. The agreement would guarantee the presence of US military in Afghanistan for at least several years after 2014 and grant US economic and military aid to the country. However, the proposed deal has met with strong opposition both within Afghanistan and from some of its neighbours.

The US-led Nato coalition, which has been fighting the Taliban since 2001, cut troop numbers by about 30,000 in 2012. There are now about 100,000 international forces still in Afghanistan from 50 contributing countries. In December, the British media reported that the country, which has the second largest number of troops in Afghanistan, could cut its forces from 9,000 to just 5,200 by the end of this year.

With 2014 drawing near, the focus of Nato‘s mission has largely shifted from the battlefield to training the Afghan national security forces, which are expected to take over security after the foreign forces’ exit.

It will be a daunting task for Washington and Kabul to pave the way for a relatively smooth transition period this year, as the capability of Afghan forces needs to be improved remarkably so they can face up to the country’s bleak security situation.

According to General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence, the Afghan forces are now charged with 80 percent of security missions, but they are not equipped to face the most lethal weapon of the militants - roadside bombs. A recent US congressional report also pointed out that high-level Afghan units still need vital air, logistics and other support from the occupation forces.

The entire security outlook in Afghanistan looks anything but promising. Recent analysis suggests the overall level of violence in the country was higher in 2012 than it was before a US troop surge more than two years ago, with insurgent activity up in the north and west. Statistics from the Afghan side indicate more than 1,050 Afghan troops died in 2012, which is much higher than 2011.

The Afghan government tried to engage the still potent Taliban in a national reconciliation process, with a series of direct and indirect contacts among the Afghan government, the US administration, the Taliban and Pakistan last year. But the Taliban, which ruled the country between 1996 and 2001 with an iron fist, have rejected these overtures. On Saturday, they again warned of a prolonged war in Afghanistan if any foreign troops stay after 2014.

An effective security apparatus and continued engagement with the Taliban will be top of the Afghan government’s agenda this year, as stability, peace and order are primary requisites for the war-torn country to take the path of national reconciliation and rebuilding.

The writer is a senior columnist. This article has been reproduced from China Daily.